Steven McKnight is simply intoxicated with his first taste of a social media imbroglio.
...inclusion of the volatile word [riff-raff] in the C3 essay prompted widespread attention. For this, I am simply delighted. This was my first brush with social media, and I can clearly see its power.
My next two essays, for the December and January editions of ASBMB Today, will deal with this flaw head-on. Trust me — I will take off the gloves and fight bare-fisted in those two essays.
I'm sympathetic. We all get a little giddy the first time we spark a social media dustup that gets all sorts of people talking about us and our pet opinions. Doesn't make him any more right in his opinions, but whatever.
What really interests me is his choice of a sports-analogy that is more apt than he realizes.
In the state of Texas, tens of thousands of young kids begin competing in organized football during elementary school. The enterprise is highly inclusive and exceedingly diverse. By the time these kids get to high school, they know a lot about the sport and have begun to develop skills. In high school, however, a weeding-out process begins. Not all kids make the junior varsity and varsity teams, and not all kids — even if they make the team — are apportioned equal playing time. As things progress to college, the weeding-out process becomes all the more acute. Playing on Friday nights as a high-school athlete in Texas is lots of fun with broad participation. Playing on Saturdays as a college athlete may be equally fun, but only the most competitive kids are on the field. The final weeding-out step comes when players are drafted by the National Football League — 32 teams sport 53-man rosters, meaning that only 1,696 young men are eligible to suit up for Sunday football. These are the best of the best athletes and are rewarded accordingly....I think of science in this same way.
Naturally this is just a re-hash of the baseball player analogy that Comradde PhysioProffe loves to deploy on these pages and it has a lot of truth in it.
I wrote a post once upon a time that is relevant to this issue. HIGHLY relevant.
Hmm. You know, I once watched a Rose Bowl in which an undersized mediocre looking, but nevertheless competent, quarterback did a decent job of not losing too badly to his opposition. Faint praise right? Well, homie went on to a NFL pro career and made tons of cash while being, well, still kinda mediocre. Back in the 1978 Rose Bowl, however, fans were lucky enough to watch one Warren Moon (Wikipedia) of the UW Huskies whup up on the U. Mich Wolverines (boo!). Of course, even for some third rate collegiate bowl game, the fans were lucky to have him.
He was recruited by a number of colleges, but some wanted to convert Moon to another position as was the norm for many major colleges recruiting black high school quarterbacks. Moon decided to attend West Los Angeles College in 1974-75 where he was a record-setting quarterback. After Moon showed his ability at West L.A., only a handful of four-year colleges showed interest in signing him. Offensive Coordinator Dick Scesniak [University of Washington], however, was eager to sign the rifle-armed Moon.
...oh, for chrissakes! People. This was the 1970s!!! Oh yeah, that's right. I remember those days. Black players can't be quarterback, you see. Don't have the right shoulder structure, it's a genetic thing doncha know. Plus, they aren't as good at all that, you know, quarterbacking stuff....
Come to think of it, I seem to recall some weebag Div I hockey player (who never ended up going anywhere professionally) writing some paper about how black people's hip structure precluded them from skating very well. (Or, skating like gangbusters and then fixing, oh, knees and hips for a living as an orthopedic surgeon)
Sorry. Back to the point. Oh yes. Warren Moon. Back to the Wikipedia:
Throughout his CFL career, Moon amassed 1,369 completions on 2,382 attempts (57.4 completion percentage) for 21,228 yards and 144 touchdown passes. He also led his team to victory in 9 of 10 postseason games. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Edmonton Eskimos Wall of Honour. In 2006, he was ranked fifth on a list of the greatest 50 CFL players presented by Canadian sports network TSN.
Not to shabby for a guy thought physically and mentally incapable of playing the quarterback position because of his skin color, right? Pretty decent.
What? What's that you say? There's more? Oh, riiiiigghht. That Warren Moon. The one who next jumped to the NFL and played from 1984-2000 as one of the more exciting quarterbacks to take the field,
Combining his NFL and CFL stats, Moon's numbers are nearly unmatched in professional football annals: 5,357 completions in 9,205 attempts for 70,553 yards and 435 touchdowns. Even if his Canadian League statistics are discounted, Warren Moon's career is still exceptional: 3,988 completions for 49,325 yards, 291 touchdown passes, 1,736 yards rushing, and 22 rushing touchdowns. During his NFL career, Warren Moon was named to nine Pro Bowl games (1988-1995, 1997).
I'm just getting going...
Alright. There's really not much point in going on and on to list Owens and Ashe and Gibson and the Williamses and Ribbses and Woods and Jones and all the other great athletes who thrilled (or continue to thrill) us with their class, competence and courage. Little point in detailing for each case where and when the operating rules of their sports (official and/or de facto) would have (or did..or still do) prevent them from excelling because of their skin color. Not much profit in describing how the overt bigotry of "they can't do it" papered over the fear that someone might be better than the rest of us. Silly to talk about the moral repugnance of categorically closing off the open field of play to some people just to benefit ourselves or those more like ourselves.
Because, you know, we're beyond all that sort of thing now. And...this is a blog that is supposed to focus on science. And the conduct of science. Which is objective. The only goal is the discovery.
To spell it out for Dr. McKnight and his fellow travelers....
Science is not a pure meritocracy. In the recent past when current generations were getting their start academic science was even less of a pure meritocracy. People who didn't look the right way, choose parents in the right way, express external dangly bits in the right way....all sorts of people who might have come to the table with the right brain equipment were systematically excluded. Denied from the competition before it even properly got started.
This still goes on. The "weeding-out" process that McKnight refers to (sports and science alike) is affected by bias. Opportunity is afforded to not the purest demonstrable talent. The pool of talent is chosen by the coaches. If they don't think a black kid can play quarterback, they will do their damndest to convert him to some other position so as to keep his "talent". How many Warren Moons did we never get to see on the field taking snaps?
As the man said, I think of science in this same way.
The coaches are the lab heads. The grayer bearded and bluer of hair. The gatekeepers are supported by their peers in review, in conference program committee and on hiring committees. Just as assuredly as coaches are supported by their owners, boosters, loyal alum, etc who have definite opinions on what a quarterback should be.
Somewhat less categorically, the coaches of sports and the coaches of science have individual biases as well. Show early signs of talent or even just effort.... and the coach gives you more playing time, calls the plays to you and lets you take the crunch-time shots. Sometimes the favored player is clearly inferior but the coach likes them for some reason (often enough because it is their own child) and wants to give them the best shot. Sometimes specialist talents are not used effectively simply because the coach can't see it or doesn't know how to work this talent into the mix so as to benefit the team (and that specialist talent's development).
I see this all the damn time in my now considerable hours spent watching my kids and their teammates play various sports.
And you know what? It is JUST like a dynamic that goes down in larger academic labs.
It is JUST like a dynamic that goes on in scientific sub-fields.
And McKnight's vision of who the "riff-raff" are and who the real scientists are cannot help but be similarly biased. We can't speculate on the nature of McKnight's biases...who knows, he may think that women or African-American or Asian scientists are the bomb and that standard old American white-guys like himself are a played out demographic*. I don't know**.
But what I do know is that whatever his concept of who is in the "riff raff" pool, he is biased and wrong. How can he not be? Most any individual person is going to be biased. That is why we use grant-selection and faculty-selection processes that depend on a committee of people. So as to hedge our bets against the bias of the individual attitude.
So I welcome this discussion McKnight would like to have. I look forward to further "bare-fisted" assertions of his position.
Because you know what? I know guys like this. I know what they are.
And I'm here to tell you. This guy is going to reveal further depths of his indefensible, personal-bias based and just-plain-wrong attitudes about who the best scientists are. In doing so, he will undercut support for anyone who might be nodding along with his truthiness at present. And that will be a good thing.
*I do actually know at least one highly accomplished privileged older white guy scientist who has expressed a sentiment like this and appears to believe it. Just for the record.
**HAHAHAHAHA, of course, I do know. This guy is going to get caught saying some horrible racist and/or sexist thing along the lines of Jim Watson's finest statements. There is no possible other way this can go down. It's a rule of nature.